Another tragedy, but without successors: Geoffrey Goodman considers some parallels with the sudden death of Hugh Gaitskell in 1963

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The Independent Online
QUITE apart from the personal and political tragedy that surrounds the death of John Smith, there is another aspect of the drama: the remarkable parallel with the death of Hugh Gaitskell on 18 January 1963 at the age of 56.

Similarly, Hugh Gaitskell was poised to become Labour's Prime Minister in the election that had to take place in 1964. Similarly, Gaitskell had already gone some way to refashion the older Labour image; and similarly, though this parallel is less exact, he had fought off the challenge from the left, especially the great campaign against the H-bomb which so savagely split the Labour movement in 1960 and 1961. Unlike John Smith and Neil Kinnock, though, Gaitskell went on to astound his closest admirers and supporters by coming out vehemently against Britain's membership of the Common Market.

Even so, there are many uncanny resemblances between the deaths of these two Labour leaders. The most striking perhaps is the suddenness of it all. Within a few days of entering hospital with a mysterious virus infection, Hugh Gaitskell was dead. The country, as well as the Labour Party, was stunned. The tributes from all areas of the political spectrum - as with John Smith - were quite special.

The turbulence inside the Labour Party was enormous after Gaitskell's death. I was covering the story of a George Brown tour in the unemployment blackspots of north- west England when the news reached Brown, then deputy leader. An RAF plane was put at his disposal to fly him back to London for immediate talks with the party leadership. Brown was convinced he would succeed against his two principal rivals, Harold Wilson and James Callaghan. He was badly wrong.

Those were the days before Labour set up its current, and cumbersome, electoral college. It was then the duty of the parliamentary Labour Party alone to elect the leader and MPs voted for Harold Wilson by 144 votes to George Brown's 103, having already eliminated James Callaghan in the first ballot. Harold Wilson, at 46, became what was then the youngest leader ever elected: the rest, as they say, is history.

The question of whether Hugh Gaitskell would have made a good prime minister is still asked, and the verdict remains a divided one. His many admirers are still convinced that he would have been one of the country's outstanding prime ministers. I am less persuaded - not because he seemed exhausted after his eight years of ideological battle within the Labour Party. Rather because he did not have the same degree of flexibility, or guile, as Harold Wilson to unite the fragile coalition which then, more than ever, was the seemingly incurable state of the Labour Party. Still, we will never know the real answer, as we will not now know it about John Smith.

My own view is that the Scottish Presbyterian lawyer, dying almost at the same age as Gaitskell, would have made a first-class prime minister, possibly in the mould of Clement Attlee. I could have well imagined John Smith presiding over a Labour cabinet with a touch of Attlee's spartan indifference to some of the endemic absurdities of political life. I also think that John Smith's wonderful impish sense of humour would have been of greater advantage to a Labour cabinet, and perhaps to the country, than was Attlee's somewhat sardonic aloofness. But we will never know.

Where there are substantial differences between now and 1963, when Harold Wilson assumed the leadership, is in the number of potential successors. Today there is no one in the wings who has had experience of government. No one in the line of succession has the political experience behind them of a Harold Wilson, a James Callaghan or even a George Brown. That is not to belittle the stature of the present Labour front bench. It is simply a statement of fact. The current political climate has not favoured the present generation as it did the classmates of 1963. The political problems, moreover, are far greater than they appeared in the Sixties.

What is comparable, however, is the number of candidates who are in their early- or mid-forties - as was Harold Wilson 31 years ago; men such as Gordon Brown, Robin Cook and Tony Blair, all of whom must rank as strong claimants.

Yet we must beware of being over-enthralled by historic comparisons. The Labour Party that Hugh Gaitskell led, often with such great difficulty, and the party inherited by Harold Wilson was very different from the contemporary animal. Despite all the inner turbulence of the Labour movement in the early Sixties there was then, even on the right wing of the party, a much greater commitment to the classical doctrines of socialism.

To be sure, Gaitskellism was the first really significant post-war attempt to reform that doctrine - though it is not generally appreciated that Gaitskell himself had a much stronger radical instinct than his public persona suggested. Moreover, the world had not then experienced the most extraordinary event of the century - the collapse and eclipse of the Soviet Union with its empire of Communist belief. That too has left a huge and still to be answered question against basic socialist doctrine: a question that John Smith's Labour Party has been struggling desperately hard to answer.

In so many ways, Smith himself was an embodiment of that answer. He had a profound, almost religious belief in the moral force and values of socialist ideas - yet also combined that belief with a realistic acknowledgement that society, everywhere, has moved on since the early socialist gospels were first written down. He was a natural heir to modern social and economic thinking and political reality - but also his feelings were tuned to some of the older melodies of the socialist past. And in that sense he was on firmer ground than Hugh Gaitskell, not least because he could and did use his formidable skills to compromise with grace as well as courage. He will be a hard act to follow, for there are no obvious Harold Wilsons in the wings.

(Photograph omitted)